9. Missed Paths (1)
Thoma’s daily routine had become fixed. He would wake up, pray, eat lunch with the children, pray again, also going to the city every now and then to buy groceries or to learn a bit more about carpentry. He prayed earlier than he used to in the evening in order to go with Ellie to meet Ellin. He always looked forward to watching them play well into the night. The last thing he did every day was take his medication before bed, falling into a deep sleep until the next morning. This routine had come to feel natural and he felt that life would continue on like this forever. However, that belief would not last long.
“… Eh, Sister Ellie-?! Are you sick?” Thoma asked in concern. “Why are you…!”
“No, I’ve just had a minor fever recently… I’m fine. I’ll get over it soon.”
She was leaning against a tree, her face pale and her breathing ragged. Her body was also drenched in sweat.
“Sick? Ellie, sick?” Ellin asked.
“Hm? No, look, I’m just fine!”
Ellie stood up straight, put some strength into both of her hands, and shook them in exaggerated excitement. But just doing that much caused her to lose her breath, and she staggered back against the tree.
Seeing that, Ellin turned to Thoma in panic.
Thoma placed a hand on her forehead.
‘… There is no fever. She’s actually freezing! Also, why is she sweating so much?’
“Wait a moment.”
Thoma placed a hand over her head and cast healing magic. Specks of light rained from his hand, like snow, fading away as they touched her body. Her ragged breathing calmed and her pale face regained some color. Ellie looked at Thoma in awe as she felt her feeble body growing stronger by the second.
“A-amazing! Was that magic? I’ve heard that magic’s amazing, but to be able to…!”
“Haha!” Thoma chuckled cheerfully. “Isn’t that obvious? I was once a Hero, after all. Something like healing magic is-Ook!”
Thoma was struck by a sudden wave of nausea, quickly placing his hand over his mouth. Something came rushing up his throat. He couldn’t taste anything, but there was a familiar metallic scent tickling the end of his nose; it was blood.
‘… I’ve overdone it.’
His body wasn’t doing well lately. It almost felt like his blood was getting thicker; he’d started suffering from poor circulation as well as chronic stiffness. Because of these health issues, the backlash from using magic had only grown more severe. Thoma knew that if he wasn’t careful, he might actually end up coughing up blood in front of her.
“Huh? What wrong, brother?”
Thoma glanced at Ellie and Ellin, who was standing behind her. Even she seemed to be concerned, wearing a slight frown rather than her typical blank expression.
Forcing himself to swallow the blood, Thoma spoke with a smile. “Oh my! It’s late. We should hurry back before people start looking for us.
His effort to avoid the topic didn’t slip past Ellie, but she decided against pressing the issue further.
“Yes, you’re right. Goodbye Ellin! Be good!”
Ellie hugged Ellin tight, and Ellin hugged her back with a faint smile on her face. However, the young girl noticed something while in Ellie’s embrace and tilted her head curiously.
“Ellie, are you…”
“Sh…!” Ellie placed a finger over her lips. “I’m fine.” She smiled brightly before releasing Ellin and walking toward the door. “Sleep tight. I’ll come again tomorrow!” Ellie waved her hand and left to head back to the abbey with Thoma.
As Ellin helplessly watched the distance between them grow, she quietly muttered to herself. “Ellie, are you… sick?”
Thoma stopped and narrowed his eyes once they were near the abbey, looking at an unexpected crowd gathered at the entrance. There seemed to be two distinct groups of people, the monks and nuns of the abbey, and a band of knights. They wore long black cloaks that reached down to their feet, with hoods pulled up. Underneath they had on sturdy looking full-bodied plate armor and full-faced metal helmets. All of the knights had a large stature, taller than any of the monks even without their armor on.
“Who could they be?” Ellie asked nervously.
Thoma didn’t know why they had come to such a remote abbey, but he did know who these knights were.
“… Royal Knights from the Kingdom of Lome.”
Each one of them were powerful warriors capable of holding their own against the Holy Knights of the Holy Kingdom.
‘Why would knights from Lome be here?!’ No, before that, how could these knights get here in the first place?’
To visit this abbey so openly meant that they had received permission from the Holy Kingdom, but why travel all the way here in the first place?
One of the knights finally noticed their approach and turned to face the pair, immediately heading straight for Thoma. His steps were heavy, leaving gouged out holes in the ground with every stride. It was clear from how he carried himself that the knight was overflowing with dignity and pride.
“We’ve come from the Kingdom of Lome,” he announced.
“… Is that so?” Thoma said. “Why are knights such as yourselves in this place…?”
“We’ve come here after being told that a criminal of Lome is hiding out in this abbey.”
‘A criminal…? In our abbey?!’
Thoma shook his head in disbelief. How could a fugitive possibly be in hiding here? The only visitors they’d had recently was an elderly group that had come to pray earlier this week. Other than them, nobody else had come to this remote place.
‘Could someone be sheltering them in secret? Like I’m sheltering Ellin?’
Thoma gulped nervously. This was troubling. If they were here to search the area for a criminal, Ellin was bound to be discovered in the process. If that happened, not only would he be severely punished for harboring a demon, but Ellie as well.
‘No, Sister Ellie should be safe. I’ll just take on all of the blame!’
Thoma spoke with feigned confusion. “A c-criminal…? Just who could you be referring to…?”
“Who, you ask?” Knight spat out the next words mockingly. “It’s you.”
Thoma’s eyes grew wide, and Ellie shouted in surprise.
“Brother! You’re a criminal?!”
“No, this can’t be!” Thoma yelled, just as surprised as her. “What crimes am I guilty of…!”
It was at that moment a female voice interjected. “That’s too much for a joke. Even Sir Hero is flustered.”
Thoma turned his head in surprise, seeing someone completely unexpected. She was a beautiful mage wearing a plain black robe, looking to be in her 30s. Her violet hair matched her eyes, and she held a mage’s trademark staff in her hands.
“It’s been a while, Sir Hero.”
“Akareal?” Thoma called out her name in shock, and the knight who had been interrogating Thoma snickered before his body shook with uproarious laughter.
“Hahahaha!! Look at this man! Truly! For his panicked face to be this funny! How have you not changed at all?”
The knight draped his arm over Thoma’s shoulder.
“Can’t you recognize me? Hm?”
“This voice… could it be, Oskal?”
The knight took off his helmet. He was a man in his mid-40s with reddish-brown hair and dark brown eyes. He had a gruff beard—the same reddish-brown color—and wore a broad grin as he looked down at Thoma.
“You finally recognize me, you criminal! Even after your time as the Hero was over you never came to visit us. Isn’t that too cruel!”
“Calling me a criminal…”
“Of course, you are a criminal! The crime of not paying your senior a visit is great! We’re going to drink all night, so be ready! Hahahaha!”
Ellie was watching Akareal and Oskal from behind Thoma, wide-eyed.
“Brother, who are they?”
“My old companions.” Thoma smiled nostalgically. “The ones that defeated the Demon Lord alongside me.”
It was late at night and the children of the abbey were being put to sleep. Some quietly chatted with their neighbors while others snuggled up under the covers, clutching their stuffed dolls close. Two nuns were currently watching the children settle down. One of them wore a pleasant smile, while her partner had an unusually disgruntled expression. Glancing at her out of the corner of her eye, the nun finally decided to see what was wrong.
“Ellie, why do you look so unhappy?”
Rather than answer her question, Ellie simply said what was on her mind. “Brother Thoma looked happy. Do you think it’s because of those guests?”
“Ah, the guests.”
The nun recalled the duo that had arrived alongside a group of knights just a little while ago. Ever since they’d come, Brother Thoma had been happier than anyone at the abbey had seen him before.
Even Ellie, who had spent more time with him than the rest of them, had never seen him wear such a genuine smile.
“I don’t like it,” she pouted. “He was all slack-jawed, fawning over that mage just because she’s such a beauty. He must have went with them because of her, right?”
“Are you jealous?”
“Jealous? Never! That’s not true!” Ellie denied it vehemently as she shook her head.
The sister who was watching her covered her mouth and tried not to giggle.
‘Well, it’s normal for her to feel attraction toward the opposite sex, but comparing her age with Brother Thoma’s… It’d make him a cradle-robber, but it does make for a juicy story. The forbidden love between a sister and a monk~! Ah, is this actually that uncommon?’
It was not without precedent. Many monks and nuns often married people from the same church or abbey. She recalled a certain popular book in her head and grew excited.
‘Ah~ It’s a romantic story. The sweet story of a nun and a monk! Together, in the chapel where they had pledged their lives to God… Kya! Should I tease her more?’
“Heh~ Looks like you’re worried that your boyfriend is going to get taken?”
Ellie tilted her head in confusion. “By boyfriend… you mean lovers?”
Ellie spoke in shock. “My goodness! Think of our age difference! There’s no way!”
‘Huh…? Was I wrong?’
The nun felt disappointed, but continued watching Ellie. She looked troubled, avoiding the nun’s gaze while scratching her cheek.
“It’s like… my a member of my family is being taken or something…? I’m just worried he’s going to go somewhere…”
“Family? The brother…?”
“It’s that… I don’t have family. I just think it’s this kind of feeling… Maybe he’ll leave the abbey and go on an adventure with those people…”
“You’re worried that Brother Thoma will leave? He’s like family to you?”
Ellie shut her mouth and nodded.
“Just how are you so cute?!” The nun happily hugged Ellie and rubbed her cheeks. “Ellie! Then I must be family as well! Call me Sis!”
“… Are you sure it’s not auntie?”
“… Don’t call me auntie! I might be chubby, but it’s not that bad! But also… your body is quite cold? Are you ok?”
Ellie looked surprised at the nun’s concern before shaking her hands in defense. “I”m fine! I’m fine! This is nothing. Anyway…” Ellie looked out a bag from a drawer. “I also have the medicine that Brother Thoma got for me.”
Ellie was looked at the bag happily, when a sudden thought popped into her mind..
“Now that I think about it, where is Brother Faron? I hadn’t seen him recently.”
“Well, I don’t know…” the nun said as she tried to remember. “Ah! Now that I think about it, I heard that he was invited to the palace! He’s probably busy at work there.”
“Yep, it’s almost time for the festival, right? He must be busy because of all the work for the upcoming summit on the alliance between The Holy Kingdom and the Kingdom of Lome.”
Ellie was satisfied with the sister’s explanation. When she left, Ellie stood for a moment thinking of Thoma. His image in her mind caused her to suddenly blush.
“Well, family… there are a few different meanings behind it.”
She had a sly smile on her face.
The group toasted one another, raising their cups in the air. This bar they’d come to in Lania was always bursting with life. Whether they were farmers returning from a day of hard labor, merchants, or even mercenaries hired to slay demons, they were gathered here. Everyone sat around wooden tables, dimly lit by candle light, as they drank away the stress and fatigue of their daily lives
“Haha! You know, it’s just been too long!”
Oskal was seated on a wooden chair, which creaked dangerously under his bulk. Oskal was a big man in his own right but he was also wearing his armor, so his weight was considerable.
“I don’t really like this place. Can’t we drink somewhere more fancy?”
Akareal lifted her mug of beer with both hands and daintily drank from it, but frowned as though it didn’t suit her tastes.
Thoma smiled as he watched the two of them.
Ah, it has truly been a long time since I last saw my companions!
He had many fond memories of their time together, back when they all went on an adventure to subjugate the Demon Lord
“I… don’t like this heavy armor. It feels stuffy! I’m wearing it out of formality since I’m in another country but I’d rather wear something more comfortable, like a good set of leather armor!” Oskal pounded on his chest plate as he spoke.
“It’s good at covering all those stupid muscles of yours.” Akareal said, lightly tapping on the armor with her staff.
Thoma enjoyed their company, but he still didn’t know why they were both here. “So, what have you two come all this way for?”
The pair glanced at each other awkwardly after hearing his question.
“The Holy Kingdom decided to finalize the century-long alliance between our kingdoms,” Oskal explained, “so I used that as an excuse to tag along with the delegation.”
“Ah, now that I think about it, I heard something about that…” Thoma had been relatively oblivious to the current happenings of the world ever since he’d started running his abbey. “And you, Akareal?”
Akareal averted her gaze and scratched her cheek. “That is… I didn’t really have a reason. I just wanted to meet the Hero after such a long time.”
“So that’s how it is, haha. I should’ve visited you guys, but I had some personal matters keeping me…”
As Thoma awkwardly explained himself, Oskal nodded sympathetically.
“Ah, looks like it. For the triumphant Hero to now live in some remote, dilapidated abbey… Hah, the kingdoms are ignorant of such things as gratitude. Rather than reward you for your heroics, they abandoned you. Should I use my resources to make you a member of the Royal Knights?”
Hearing Oskal’s offer, Akareal quickly proposed her own “… Or, would you rather work as an assistant to the Royal Mage of Lome? I can even have a position prepared for you immediately!”
Oskal laughed when he heard that. “Aren’t you being too obvious?”
“It’s not like that!” she snapped.
Thoma chuckled at their interaction. “You two, have you both met Salem?”
The pair went silent, their previously cheerful moods vanishing.
“No, we should meet him soon but… it’s a bit…”
“Yea, he… he’s changed a lot since our days in the Hero’s party.”
They were both a bit reluctant to meet with Salem. Oskal had to meet him for diplomacy’s sake but Akareal had no such duty, as she had only come here for personal reasons.
At that moment, the door to the bar burst open and soldiers rushed in. Wearing chainmail covered by a white surcoat bearing the symbol of a golden cross, they were enlisted soldiers. Behind them was a Holy Knight. The knight quickly surveyed the room before spotting his quarry, a group of men sitting a few tables away from Thoma and his friends.
“Shit! A Holy Knight?!”
The group that had been leisurely drinking beer just a few seconds ago flipped their table over and scattered.
— Ω —